Leading article: A flawed election, but some flickers of hope

Forget the obvious – that hardliners have come out on top in the elections in Iran. That was a given, given the pressures, ruthlessly applied, on Iran's struggling and downcast moderates. This election was never going to see a comeback by progressive forces, numerous as they are, especially among the young, who yearn to escape the regime's policy of suffocating piety at home and confrontation abroad.

If the moderates have taken more than 40 of the 290 seats in the Iranian assembly, they will have done well, when it is remembered that they made up most of the almost 2,000 candidates disqualified from the election. But if we put aside a view of the election as a trial of strength between moderates and conservatives and observe it as a power struggle within the conservative camp, it all looks far more interesting.

From one side of the stage, we have the apocalyptic ultras, chanting in favour of Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From the other, enter the so-called pragmatic conservatives who feel the president has gone too far in confronting the West over nuclear power.

Note, then, the landslide victory in the holy city of Qom of Ari Larijani, Iran's former top nuclear negotiator. A pragmatist standard-bearer, Larijani is also seen as a potential challenger to Ahmadinejad in next year's presidential elections, which in some ways will be more important than the parliamentary vote, given parliament's circumscribed role.

Some Iran watchers see the vote in a clerical stronghold like Qom as a sign that the powerful clergy have lost confidence in Ahmadinejad and may rally behind Larijani, if he stands in 2008. Those of us in the West who support jaw-jaw rather than war-war with Iran can only trust that a new president in Iran – not to mention a new president in the White House – might offer a way out of the current depressing logjam.

Of course, we must not harbour the illusion that even if the so-called pragmatists outflank Ahmadinejad, this will mean more than a change of style. Larijani himself has insisted that his differences with the president are largely down to presentation. The pragmatic conservatives have no real ideological differences with Ahmadinejad, therefore. Much of their dislike of him boils down to distrust of his economic policies. Throwing cash at the poor in a populist fashion may have made the president a hero in working-class south Tehran. But it's clear the spending spree has triggered an inflationary surge – running at 20 per cent – that is hitting the poor hardest. These trends worry many Iranians. But it would be mistaken to assume such critics of the president have reformist axes to grind when the source of their hostility is entirely different.

At the same time, we must not dismiss hints of change in Iran's political landscape as irrelevant. Five years after the start of the Iraq war, Iran's status as a regional behemoth is more than obvious. It is a direct, though inadvertent, consequence of the war that the United States led and which Britain so enthusiastically – and foolishly – backed. We must live with the realities of this new balance of power, at the same time as doing our best to dissuade an overambitious Iran and and an aggressive US from military confrontation. To escape that dismal outcome, we need a new constellation of forces: Iran minus Ahmadinejad and Washington minus George Bush – although John McCain's gung-ho approach to Iran does not offer much consolation. But there remains hope that the plates may shift and space open up. Europe might even be able to revive its old policy of constructive engagement with Tehran. Not the rosiest scenario, but the best we can expect in the circumstances.